I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Sophocles’ Antigone. I didn’t have much to do with it as an undergrad – as far as I can remember, I spent more time with Euripides’ Hippolytus, Sophocles’ Electra and the Oresteia trilogy. Neither did it form a central element of my graduate training, although of course I read it for my comprehensive exams. But I came to wince whenever a student mentioned that they had read the Antigone in high school. In my admittedly limited experience, it inevitably meant that they had been taught it badly, at least as far as a classicist was concerned, in ways that prioritised presentist readings over appreciation for the ancient context.
This isn’t to say that the Antigone can’t still speak. In fact, the language, imagery and themes of the play remain strikingly powerful and relevant, as the current production at the National Theatre demonstrates. You have probably heard of it as the one with Christopher Eccleston as Creon, thus following David Tennant in bringing legions of Doctor Who fans to more traditional theatre, but the play itself is marvellous. It begins with a recreation of the famous White House situation room photograph released when the death of Osama bin Laden was announced. The question of how to treat the dead was, of course, critical to that incident as well, given the decision to bury bin Laden’s body at sea. The set is evocative of some administrative space in the Iraq Green Zone, all temporary desks and glass offices and typewriters and broken lampshades.
However, the contemporary setting does not distract from the language of the play, in a translation by Don Taylor – the odd ‘terrorist’ creeps in, but as a natural synonym for ‘enemy of the state’. Apparently this translation was made for a BBC production back in the early 1980s, and it’s aged very well indeed. There’s never a moment when the play feels as if it’s being forced to have contemporary relevance; the production allows the power of the original to speak for itself in modern clothes. Eccleston makes an excellent Creon – I had expected a sort of negative version of his Doctor Who, which would have been worth seeing in and of itself, but instead he pulled out acting stops I didn’t know he had to create a convincing picture of a man who’s sure he isn’t really a tyrant while everyone around him is quite sure he is. Jodie Whittaker’s Antigone was also gripping, managing to communicate her passion and single-mindedness with great effect; the scene where she was prepared to be taken to be buried alive was particularly haunting. The chorus are made up of the cast of a political back office – generals, secretaries, administrators – all the people who support Creon’s rule and are thus invested in obeying his judgement rather than speaking truth to power.
But I’m afraid this was not a complete success, and that is because while the play is allowed space to breathe, not enough effort goes into explaining the ancient features of the text. The first messenger speech, where the soldier arrives to report that person or persons unknown have buried Polynices against Creon’s orders, was played for laughs – the soldier was a comic squaddie type, whose reappearance with Antigone still kept up the humour. This meant that the dramatic tension of the moment didn’t quite get going – it felt like an attempt to defuse the scene instead of prioritise the cultural importance of burying the dead in the Greek world, which leads to the taboo that drives Sophocles’ plot. In modern England, we don’t quite have the same way of thinking about dead bodies – the First World War began to shift those social attitudes, with the first war dead who did not come back in one piece, and the increase of bombing as a martial technique means we have a category of dead who cannot be given a burial as understood by the Greeks. But this Antigone doesn’t try to take us back to that mindset until the appearance of the prophet Teiresias, played electrifyingly by Jamie Ballard, makes the horrific consequences of the action clear – consequences which feel utterly alien to the play as we have experienced it, because there has been no acknowledgement of the direct influence of the supernatural until suddenly it is thrust upon us. The audience has no forewarning of the horror of Creon’s actions, whereas the tension of his hubris really should lie underneath the play’s structure throughout.
What this means is that some excellent acting left this particular audience member feeling, as Aristotle might have put it, as if the necessary catharsis had not been achieved. It was still worth seeing, as it held the audience’s attention for the full ninety minutes and is a gripping piece of theatre. This production highlights the way that the best modern productions let ancient tragedy speak without getting in their way, but sadly the individually excellent pieces did not quite cohere into a unified excellent whole.